Key Cambodian leaders have said that they will return to Cambodia on November 9th via Thailand in recent days. Sam Rainsy, the founder of the dissolved opposition political group, the Cambodian National Rescue Party, has vowed to be back in his home country to lead a people’s power movement on its independence day against the long-time ruler and former Khmer Rouge member Hun Sen who now leads what is effectively a one-party state where dissent is stamped out.

A threat by Cambodian opposition leaders to use Thailand as a base to launch a people’s power movement to overthrow long-time strong man Hun Sen has seen trade in Thailand’s Sa Kaeo province disrupted this week and a firm response from Thailand’s prime minister who warned that such a move would not be tolerated on Thailand’s side of the border.

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Hun Sen is now the longest-serving government leader in the world. Cambodia under his leadership has become effectively a one-party state. Yet, despite his defiance of the US and European Union, there remain strong trade ties. Now the main opposition leader Sam Rainsy (inset top left), the founder of the banned Cambodian National Rescue Party along with other leaders, say they will return to Cambodia to lead a people’s revolt on Saturday next, November 9th. They say they will travel there through Thailand. Mu Sochua, another leader of the party (inset top right) was denied entry into Thailand on October 20th last but has vowed to return this week at a controversial press conference in Jakarta. Thailand’s Prime Minister Parayut Chan ocha has warned that they will not be allowed entry as the kingdom could not contemplate being involved in the affairs of another ASEAN state.

Cross border trade between Thailand and Cambodia has been impinged upon this week as security forces on both sides of the border react to a plan by Cambodian opposition parties to return to that kingdom on November 9th in what is seen as a concerted effort to oust the country’s strongman, Hun Sen, who has been in power for the last thirty five years and at the upper echelons of government for 40 years.

Hun Sen is now the longest-serving government leader in the world.

Opposition leader in exile in France since 2015

The heightened tensions have been caused by publicised plans of key opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who has been living in exile in France since 2015 after a Cambodian court convicted him on defamation charges ordering him to pay $1 million, to return to his country on Saturday. 

The Cambodian leader is the founder of the Cambodian National Rescue Party which was dissolved by the courts in Cambodia in 2017 before the last general election there in which the lone party of Hun Sen, the Cambodian People’s Party, took all the seats in Parliament. 

EU and US still have strong trade ties with Cambodia

The European Union and the United States have long grappled with the increasingly authoritarian regime in Phnom Penh encouraging reform but have been met with trenchant resistance from Hun Sen’s government which consistently points out that western democracy and its standards cannot be implemented in Cambodia.

At a speech given in Phnom Penh earlier this year, Hun Sen said: ‘You eat bread, I eat rice. It’s not the same. We hope we can understand each other,’ as he called for respect from western powers for Cambodia and its laws.

Benefits from the US General System of Preferences

Despite the condemnation and threats of western powers, Cambodia has extensive trade links with the European Union which is its second-largest market, as well as the United States where it’s clothing, apparel and luggage making industry benefits from the Generalised System of Trade Preferences access which was withdrawn in recent weeks from Thailand effective in April next year.

Cambodia takes opposition threat very seriously

This recent push by the opposition activists outside Cambodia’s borders is being treated urgently by Cambodian authorities who maintain an aggressive posture to such moves often requesting the assistance of Thai security agencies to help arrest opposition activists on Thai soil with a mixed response.

Opposition activist arrested in Thailand in 2018 and deported back to Denmark

In May 2018, a Cambodian opposition activist who had refugee status in Denmark, Sam Serey, was deported from Thailand after he was arrested for overstaying his visa at an immigration centre.

Cambodia had moved fast and urgently requested that Mr Serey be handed over to Cambodian officials pointing out that Mr Serey faced a prison sentence in his home country. Thailand demurred and won praise from human rights groups for its decision.

Mr Serey had claimed that his younger brother, Yean Yoeurb, arrested and held in a Cambodian prison, died under mysterious circumstances in December 2016.

Campaign to suppress Cambodian political dissent

There is reported to be an ongoing campaign of repression against political opponents of the Hun Sen regime including the arrest last month of six opposition figures. There are believed to have been 30 such arrests so far this year. 

The leader of the now-dissolved opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party, Kem Sokha, is currently being held under house arrest in the country and has been held for the last two years. He faces charges of plotting to overthrow the government.

Sam Rainsy tells social media he is going home

The current crisis centres on a threat by Sam Rainsy and other opposition figures to return to Cambodia next Saturday which is the day Cambodians celebrate independence from France, the former colonial power. 

Mr Rainsy, the founder of the key opposition party, has issued a social media statement which says:  ‘I will depart from Paris on Thursday, November 7. I will arrive in Bangkok on Friday, November 8 to be ready to enter Cambodia on Saturday, November 9.’

Mr Rainsy also showed a picture of plane tickets and itinerary.

Thai PM says Cambodia activists will not get in

This has drawn an immediate warning from the Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha who states unequivocally that the Cambodian opposition figures will not be allowed entry in Thailand.

‘According to our commitment to ASEAN, we will not interfere in each other’s internal affairs, and we will not allow an anti-government person to use Thailand for activism,’ General Prayut said ‘ I have ordered this, so he probably won’t get in.’ 

End of October saw Cambodian opposition figure turned around at Suvarnabhumi Airport

Previously, Mu Sochua, the Vice President of the banned Cambodian National Rescue Party was denied entry at Suvarnabhumi Airport on Sunday afternoon the 20th October and flew back again to her country of origin. The political leader was not taken into custody but allowed to book a flight back to where she is living in exile.

Cambodian opposition leader says she will be back

Now Ms Sochu has also announced at a press conference in Jakarta, Indonesia that she will also be returning to Cambodia on Saturday. The opposition figure has denied comments from Phnom Penh which describe the threat as an attempted coup d’etat against the established Comabiodjan government.

‘We are risking our lives. We will go to Cambodia empty-handed with bare hands,’ Ms Sochua told reporters this week.

Press conference in Jakarta condemned by Cambodian ambassador to Indonesia urging arrests

Her press conference in Jakarta was vigorously opposed by the Cambodian ambassador to Indonesia who described it as an ‘illegal’ event.

The ambassador urged authorities there to arrest Ms Sochua and her associates who took part in the gathering which was the subject of a live internet broadcast.

Opposition feel that Cambodia is ripe for revolt

There has long been a body of opinion among opposition parties outside Cambodia that the population is waiting for a signal to rise and overthrow the current Cambodian regime which is thought to have become deeply unpopular in the country for its increasingly authoritarian methods and its closer relationship with China which has seen huge numbers of Chinese investors and businessmen flocking to the country.

There are also reports that members of Hun Sen’s family and the political elite in the country have stashed away money and purchased citizenship in Cyprus by investing in the EU territory as an escape route if the regime is toppled.

Traders in Aranyaprathet, Sa Kaeo lose business

In the short term, many small traders in Thailand’s Aranyaprathet district in Sa Kaeo this week have reported disruption to normal trade linked to security activities on both sides of the border. 

Cambodian Intelligence is reporting that the popular border crossing area could become a focal point for the opposition parties as they fear they may attempt to enter Cambodia there and rally support within the country.

Officials approached by Cambodian security services

Cambodian officials have also told Thai authorities that they fear thousands of Cambodian workers from the Thai side of the border may join the move.

Police Colonel Benjapol Rodsawat of the Sa Kaeo Immigration Police has confirmed that Thai officials have been approached Cambodian officials from Poipet and the Cambodian military seeking their cooperation.

Business and cross border trade in Thailand disrupted

He said that he had sent Thai police unit to the area but traders had fled the scene.

This is also being confirmed by Thai traders including many outside Sa Kaeo who travel to the border town. They are reporting that they have had to postpone business activities this week because of the tensions which have thrown normal trade at the key border area into a flux.

No political threat in Thailand to Hun Sen’s regime

Thai police, however, have formed the view that there is no political activity linked with the market traders despite the disruption caused by the planned events and concerns expressed by Cambodia security agencies that thousands of Cambodian my turn up on the Thai side of the border to support the opposition. 

The tensions have seen Cambodia send more military personnel to the area and Prime Minister Hun Sen has threatened even further troop deployments.

Cambodians very sensitive to political rhetoric

Cambodia has a tragic history stemming from the Pol Pot era and its population is very sensitive to political moves and threats of instability on both sides of the border.

At one point, huge numbers of Cambodian informal workers necessary for the Thai economy to function properly, fled Thailand based on a government’s announcement of a tightening of immigration policy to regularise the position of undocumented workers.

Cambodian opposition leader vows to risk imprisonment or even death to return to the country

Meanwhile, Sam Rainsy has told international newswires including the Associated Press that his plan is indeed to trigger a people’s movement and uprising against what he terms as a one-party state of tyranny in the kingdom which is one of Thailand’s closest neighbours.

He has vowed to press on with his plans even at the risk of imprisonment or even death.

Further reading:

Who is Sam Serey the Cambodian dissident deported from Thailand recently?

Cambodia’s recall of diplomatic passports linked to press reports of Yingluck’s Hong Kong dealings

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